This video by Thomas Frank inspired this blog post. I highly recommend checking it out if you have the time! It’s generalized to any creative process, but I want to offer resources and exercises for authors to do to help us finish our WIPs! Many of these are tried-and-true methods for beating writer’s block, so let me know if you’ve tried them before, and how they work for you!
The Problem: Paralysis of Choice
Tell me if you can relate: You sit down for a writing session. Worlds are at your fingertips. You’ve snatched an hour of time for yourself. Crack your knuckles and prepare for the most productive word sprint of your life. Open the document. Open another document. Open another document. Scroll through the last two chapters of three different stories. Hem and haw for fifteen minutes over which one to choose. Consult your writing buddies to decide. Flip a coin. Change your mind because you disagree with fate. Check the clock to set your pomodoro time and… realize that you’ve only got 10 minutes left.
Not you? How about this: You know exactly which WIP you want to write. You fire up the laptop, pull up a blank page, and… now what? Do you write in order? Follow an outline or go swinging into the wilderness of the plot jungle? Should you jump ahead to the scene that’s been festering in your brain for weeks or finish the stalled chapter that only needs two more pages? Which character should narrate? What POV works best for this story? Maybe you should rewrite the entire thing in present tense instead of past. Maybe you need to fine-tune the first chapter. Again.
Solution: Create Self-Imposed Limitations
The problem in both situations is the spectacle of options available to you. To take the best advantage of the time you have and make effective progress on the project, you need some boundaries.
Deadlines/Time Pressure: Writing sprints are great for this, just start small, and challenge yourself to beat your word count each time or compete with friends. I’ve seen them used most often during National Novel Writing Month (which is a deadline itself), but you can use them anytime, and I know several youtubers, such as Kate Cavanaugh and Sarah Sutton who sometimes host virtual writing sprint livestreams. This is also the inspiration behind my Monthly Goals: maybe I don’t write every day but by the end of the month, the words are done. If a plain vanilla timer isn’t good enough for you, I recommend the Forest app/browser extension combo which locks you out of the internet, and Write or Die, which will shock the fear of the reaper into your bones.
Scope: If you find yourself frustrated by tinkering away with the same project for yeeearrs on end, the issue might be that your skills are not yet up to par with your tastes, and you need to go back to the basics. Shelve the epic and get some practice finishing smaller-scope projects. Maybe start a new short story that’s a character study set in your protagonist’s backstory. Write a field guide entry about an element of the world, as if it were an in-universe textbook. Scale down. If you struggle with too many active WIPs, choose one that’s easy to finish and mark it off your list before starting any new ones. The satisfaction of finishing a small project and the brain-refresh of doing something different will also give you more motivation to go work on the big one again.
Tools: This one calls me out specifically. It’s similarly related to the above point about scope. Do you really need 8 POVs, 4 subplots, or 7 books to tell your story? Are 3 outlines and 4 edits really necessary? Can you hand it off to 5 betas, instead of 20? Could you trim down the number of nations or religions or magical schools to simplify the world-building? Sometimes the answer is no – you need to go through due process in order to complete a quality project. Other times, you might overcomplicate things for yourself. Take a step back and decide what’s really necessary.
Restrict Your Ability to Undo: This strategy is to get rid of perfectionism. If you don’t like what you’ve wrote in a session, you might find yourself deleting those words and ending with no more than when you started, even if you’ve been sitting at the keyboard for hours. Perpetual editing cycles are evil traps. This may seem counterintuitive, especially if your typing speed is much faster than your writing, your handwriting is messy, or you struggle with writer’s cramp, but shut the computer. Forcing yourself to crack open one of those fancy notebooks and commit ink to paper will get your brain unstuck and moving forward. Write in pen. Do not cross out. Don’t write on scrap-paper or regular school loose-leaf, in case you’re tempted to rip out the page, crumple it into a ball, and pitch it in the wastebin. You might slow down at first, because you have to stop and seriously think about how exactly you want to word that next sentence for maximum impact, but you’ll be more likely to keep it. Slow but steady forward progress is better than deleted progress.
Peer Pressure: I’m adding this one since it wasn’t originally in the video but I think it’s one of the most effective if, like me, you are a people-pleaser who takes promises very seriously. Promise that you WILL have something done by a certain date, and if you don’t deliver, their disappointment will haunt you to your grave, or you owe them a soda, or something. Starting this blog and my mailing list keeps me accountable because no matter what other nonsense is going on in my life, I know people are expecting weekly posts and quarterly new stories and victorious goals reports every month. Writing sprints are 150% more fun when you can compete with a friend, share your work, and receive immediate validation. If you’re limiting scope, or tools, try submitting your short story to a magazine or anthology, which often have a certain prompt or theme. Participate in something like Inktober or MerMay but instead of drawing, post flash-fiction. Bring your fancy journal and pen to a coffee shop and make sure that you look busy for the passer-bys. That last one might be more weaponized-social-anxiety, but it works for me at least haha.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found this a useful reference. What’s a project that you want to finish soon? If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Next week I’ll be sharing a book review of Patricia McLinn’s Survival Kit for Writers who Don’t Write Right. Until then, happy writing!